How many times in life do you get the chance to meet one of the founders of your subject area? For students of economics this may be Adam Smith, for geologists perhaps it’s James Hutton and medical students might have to go all the way back to Hippocrates to fit the bill. For our students, however, studying their Master’s degree in Social Business & Microfinance, Professor Muhammad Yunus is unquestionably this founding figure.
His story has been well documented: from offering small loans to local women that had a value of around £14.50; his model of microcredit is now estimated to have reached more than seven million people in poverty with the vast majority of these borrowers being Bangladeshi women. He describes access to financial services as a ‘human right’, one which traditional banking services have failed to provide for vast swathes of people living in poverty.
He is clearly still extremely passionate about his subject – an area he embarked on back in 1976 when he observed the level of reliance rural Bangladeshi women had on high interest loan sharks to operate their cottage businesses. Without access to normal financial systems the sole option for many of these women was to borrow capital at eye watering rates of interest. He went on to establish what would become the Grameen Bank to serve the financial needs of impoverished Bangladeshis – in a model he dubs ‘social business’. His definition of which is utterly uncompromising: “[A] non-dividend company to solve a human problem. There is no question of making a personal profit at all.”
For many, just the chance to get a photo, an autograph or a handshake may be the highlight of any ‘celebrity’ meeting (a term that Yunus undoubtedly occupies in many circles). For our MSc students, however, their meeting with the Nobel Laureate went considerably beyond this. This early morning event was held within GCU’s appropriately named Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health and was specifically organised to enable a small, informal question and answer session between him and the students.
He is, of course, a gifted speaker; warm and approachable and this soon drew a wide range of queries from the group. From questions focusing on the intergenerational impacts of his social business model to the empowerment of women and how this model has been contextualised globally, he was highly engaged and passionate in the defence of this model – albeit from a friendly audience. Of particular interest was his focus on the next generation and their ability to create employment for themselves through this model of microfinance:
“I tell the young people who say ‘I don’t know anything about business…’, I said your mother didn’t know how to run business, she’s an illiterate women, she had no experience or watched any other women doing it and she sent you to school, you had education…and you are lucky because you have an in-house business consultant – your mother.”
It was young people and their link to social business – a generation he calls “New Entrepreneurs” that formed the basis of his Social Business Day on May 28th earlier this year. This project is centred on the idea of creating zero unemployment; a task he believes is entirely possible through the Grameen Bank model and a fundamental change in approach from ‘job seekers’ to ‘job creators’. The young people involved in this project, to date around 1500, had the opportunity to present their business ideas to a wide range of social investors on the premise that no profit shall be made from these investments, the initial capital – and this alone – will eventually be paid back to the investor. It is a project that he states can be replicated anywhere in the world.
As the roundtable discussion went on it was clear that despite his incredibly busy schedule (he was due to oversee a Graduation Ceremony directly after the meeting) he truly relished the chance to spend time with the students. His desire to ensure no student left with an unasked question was evident when he gently ignored encouragement to move on to his next appointment and happily posed for numerous selfies with our enthusiastic students.
The field of microfinance is not lacking in debate with this model seeming to attract both impassioned support and vehement criticism. Whatever your view on the man or the model; Professor Yunus is, fundamentally, a Nobel Laureate who stayed late in a small meeting room to engage in an open, enthusiastic and passionate dialogue. I doubt that our students will ever forget it.
We’d like to extend our gratitude to Professor Yunus for taking time out of his busy schedule at GCU to come and speak with our students. If you’d like to become part of the next cohort of MSc Social Business & Microfinance students you can find out more about the course here.